Sunday, June 28, 2009

TorahBytes: Taking Matters into Our Own Hands (Hukkat & Balak)

And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy. (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:12,13; ESV)

One of the central messages of the whole Bible is the reconciliation of God and people. The Torah begins with proclaiming God as creator of the universe, intimately involved at every stage. The culmination of creation is God's special intervention in the making of man and woman in his image. No room for macro-evolutionary theory here.

It isn't long before our first parents take matters into their own hands and turn from God's clear directives, resulting in the predicament into which every human being has found themselves in. Our alienation from God is the primary cause behind sickness, death, suffering, our inability to get along with others, and our failure to properly care for the planet.

The Bible documents God's plan of restoration of his creation and in particular the re-establishment of our relationship with him. The purpose of writing this down is to extend an invitation of reconciliation to all and any who would put their trust in the Messiah.

Sadly, many who have been exposed to the Bible with its promise of God's reality, his love, his forgiveness, and his peace continue to feel far away from God. The claims of Scripture remain simply words. Praying prayers, singing songs, taking courses, and getting involved in various programs have failed to remove a continued sense of alienation.

While I am aware of countless stories of the dramatic internal change God has brought about in the lives of so many followers of Yeshua, is it possible that we have created an expectation that the genuineness of biblical faith is confirmed through our feelings rather than through God's truth? When I first heard about Yeshua I was told that if I believed in him I would be happy for the rest of my life. Thankfully there was so much more to the message I heard that day even though the offer of endless happiness intrigued me. That day I learned how Yeshua fulfilled messianic prophecy, of my need of forgiveness and how Yeshua met that need through his sacrificial death and his rising from the dead. I learned that through turning from my sins and trusting in Yeshua as Messiah, I would be made right with God. All this would become real to me no matter how I might feel emotionally. Still, since then I have had to fight my tendency to focus on my feelings rather than on God's reality.

I get the impression, however, that some people purporting to represent the Bible's teaching would rather I did focus on my feelings. The message of reconciliation with God has been transformed into one of self contentment as if God's goal in sending the Messiah was so that we could all learn to feel good about ourselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Over and over again the Bible calls us to turn from ourselves and to submit to the truth and reality of the God of Israel. While he has gone out of his way to restore us into right relationship with him, he doesn't cater to us. He indeed loves us, cares for us, helps us, even serves us, but always on his terms, not ours. When Moses momentarily took matters into his own hands, it disqualified him from entering the Promised Land. His and Aaron's failure to treat God as holy didn't break their relationship with him, but it did result in unnecessary disfavor.

This is a far cry from the "God's children can do no wrong" philosophy that appears to be sweeping the hearts and minds of so many today. I don't know why so many who claim faith in Yeshua struggle as they do, but this struggle will not be resolved by molding the God of the Bible into something more palatable, understandable, and predictable.

In our frustration and disappointments, let us be careful not to take matters into our own hands, but rather let God reveal himself on his own terms according to who he really is.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

TorahBytes: Who Directs Your Life? (Shela Lekha)

When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, "Here we are. We will go up to the place that the LORD has promised, for we have sinned." (Bemidbar / Numbers 14:39,40; ESV)

If we didn't know this story, I wonder what we would think of what I just read. In response to Moses' words, the people had a great change of heart and sought to do what God had told them. What God had told them was to enter the Promised Land. Twelve scouts had spied out the land and brought back a mixed report. They all agreed that it was a wondrously fertile land, but only two of the twelve had any confidence that the people could conquer its residents. The ten others honestly thought Israel would be slaughtered. The influence of these ten won over the hearts of the people. The quote I read is the change of heart of at least some of them.

The problem with this supposed change of heart is that God had already pronounced judgment on their lack of faith. Go and read how they responded to the challenge facing them. They didn't simple struggle with the daunting task before them; they outright rejected God's direction and were preparing to choose a new leader and return to Egypt. It wasn't until after God pronounced judgment on them and the ten rebellious scouts died of a plague, that they expressed themselves as recorded in what I quoted.

That they felt bad and confessed their sin are good things, but taking matters into their own hands by trying to do what God had wanted them to do originally is just more of the same rebellious attitude that got them into trouble in the first place. When they attempted to enter the Land they were slaughtered, since God's protection was no longer with them.

When we read the whole story, the presumption of these people is obvious. Even though God had originally told them to enter the Promised Land, due to their rebellion against him, he pronounced judgment upon them, sending them back to the wilderness to wander for thirty-eight more years. When Moses told this to the people, some of them responded by attempting to fulfill God's original directive. By determining themselves what of God's word they would obey, they demonstrated that they had learned nothing from the sin they confessed. Their phony attempt at obedience was nothing other than the perpetuation of the same sin.

The real problem that these people were not willing to face was that no matter how much they talked about God, no matter how honestly they grieved over their sins, they were nonetheless directing their own lives. They didn't listen to God when he told them to enter the land. They didn't listen to him when he told them they had to return to the wilderness.

No matter how much we invoke God's name, directing our own lives is sin - the same sin our first parents committed in the Garden. True faithfulness to God is about relinquishing control over our lives and obeying his directions on his terms. So when we find ourselves in a predicament due to our own wrongdoing, let us not think we can fix the past by trying to do the right thing after it's too late. Instead let us be attentive to what God is saying to us at that point, letting him and him alone direct our lives.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

TorahBytes: Getting Older (Be-Ha'alotkha)

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties." (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:23-26; ESV)

To date, the most difficult birthday I have ever faced was when I turned fifty a couple of years ago. I always thought of myself as not caring about getting older. Others would bemoan "getting old" at their thirtieth or fortieth birthdays, while I took pride in how I couldn't care less about such superficial matters as age - that is until I approached fifty. There was something about that number that sounded very old to me. I think it is because I was the youngest in my family and always saw my parents, especially my father as old. Even though he was in his forties when I was born, I don't remember him as being any younger than fifty. Fifty to me has always put people in their senior years.

But what's wrong with getting older? I am aware of common fears such as failing health and death, but for me I struggle with a sense of running out of time in the fulfillment of whatever my life is about. My guess is that some of you completely understand what I am talking about, while the rest of you think I am being silly. I thought when people felt this way at twenty, thirty, or forty that they were being silly. It wasn't until I reached fifty that I understood. Maybe you will never feel this way, but don't be surprised if you do one day.

I am encouraged (and corrected) by the Bible's view of aging. Apart from how it clearly honors the elderly (a group that I still don't see myself as a part of regardless of how old I think fifty is), the Scriptures never see people as done with their lives until they are dead - and even then we are not truly done. More than one key Bible character didn't begin to fulfill their calling until well past their fiftieth birthday.

This week's Torah portion illustrates this. The age of fifty was when the Levites were to "withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more." It isn't clear as to why fifty was the age for this, but it was. Yet note that this was not a regulation regarding retirement, but rather a necessary shift in their duties. At fifty they were no longer to perform the other duties of a Levite, but instead they were to "minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard." After performing the other Levitical duties for twenty-five years they were to move into a protective role.

In an age such as ours where youth is so greatly valued, I have wondered what role older people are called to play. The common retirement model of "having worked for forty years, now I can sit back and enjoy life" is disappearing. What it is being replaced with is a pressure for older people to compete with younger folks in order to keep their jobs. Our failure to recognize the special call of God on older people is a recipe for disaster.

As the Levites did, so older people need to move into protective roles. Becoming a supervisor in a company or an elder in a congregation, to name a couple of examples, are not simply rewards for working hard for a number of years. They are special roles given to those who through years of life experience should be best equipped to help guide the younger and less experienced members of our communities. As we get older, we should be growing in wisdom so that we can effectively stand on guard on behalf of those whom we serve.